By Brandon Cline, Divinity School and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching
The Power of Questions
While asking questions may seem a simple task, it is perhaps the most powerful tool we possess as teachers. If we ask the right question of the right student at the right moment we may inspire her to new heights of vision and insight. A good question can excite, disturb, or comfort, and eventually yield an unexpected bounty of understanding and critical awareness. But even apart from such serendipitous moments, question-asking serves many functions that make it the stock in trade of the skillful teacher.
Good questions can:
- Motivate student learning and fuel curiosity
- Foster intellectual development and stimulate critical thinking
- Assess student understanding
- Guide discussion and shape a positive learning environment
- While mastering the art of asking good questions is a lifelong pursuit, the following are four steps you can take to begin improving your question-asking practices.
Step One: Perform a Question-Asking Audit
Multiple observational studies have found that as many as ninety percent of teachers’ questions focus on low-level cognitive skills such as memorization and recall. Moreover, we may be unaware of our overreliance on this level of questioning. Therefore, the first step to asking better questions is to perform a question-asking audit to assess the kinds of questions you tend to ask in class. For instance, ask a colleague to observe your class and document your questions. Or record a class session and write down the questions you asked. Afterwards, categorize the questions according to Bloom’s taxonomy, using the results to evaluate the diversity and balance of your questioning practices. By periodically performing such audits, you can measure the development of your technique.
Step Two: Build a Question-Asking Tool Kit
By considering the different kinds of questions you might have asked in your audit, in addition to those you did, you begin to build a question-asking tool kit. A question-asking tool kit is a list of the kinds of questions you might ask your students in any situation, categorized in a useful form. Taxonomies of question-types abound, but developing your own inventory will furnish you with a useful repertoire from which to draw. Below is a sample inventory based on Bloom’s taxonomy; you can find others among the resources at the end of this guide.
Sample Question Tool Kit Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy
|Lowest to Highest||Cognitive Skills||Example Questions|
|Requires students to recognize or recall information.||
|Comprehension||Requires students to restate without verbatim repetition or to cite examples, thereby demonstrating deeper understanding.||
|Application||Requires students to solve a problem by applying their learning to a new situation.||
|Analysis||Requires students to break down a concept or diagnose a situation into constituent parts, and to explain their interrelationships. Questions of comparison or analogy (“How is X like Z?”) may also be classified here.||
|Synthesis||Requires students to use original thought to creatively solve a new problem. Requires students to put together material for themselves into a new whole or in a new form.||
|Evaluation||Requires students to make judgments, according to appropriate criteria, about the value of a given work, idea, method, proposal, etc.||
You will find that other tool-kits use different terminology or add categories that either supplement Bloom’s-such as hypothetical questions (What if Constantine had been defeated at the Milvian bridge?), challenge questions (Why do you think that? What counter-evidence might you cite?), and affective questions (Was there anything that made you uncomfortable? Why?)-or relate to class process (How does that comment connect to what was previously said? What themes have emerged from today’s discussion?). When you study such typologies, make them your own by coming up with categories that make sense to you and listing example questions from your own discipline.
Tips for Using Your Tool Kit:
- Always keep your tool kit handy. If you make your typology simple and easy to remember, it can remain in the back of your mind as class progresses, allowing you to mentally match possible questions to the needs of the moment.
- Use a lot of different tools. Aim to vary the types and levels of the questions you ask. This will deepen discussion and improve critical thinking. As Mark Twain put it, “If your only tool is a hammer, pretty soon all the world appears to be a nail.”
- Use the right tool for the right job. Choose the right kind of question at the right moment for your learning goals. Just as one naturally considers the order in which each class segment falls within one’s teaching plan, so one should consider how each segment might be best explored.
Step Three: Cultivate Your Question-Asking Style
Masterful question-asking attends not only to what questions one is asking, but also to how one is asking them. Question-asking style encompasses such elements as the phrasing and word choice of questions, non-verbal communication, and reaction time to student responses. These can have an enormous impact on engagement and student learning, and the skillful teacher will use them mindfully to regulate classroom dynamics.
Phrasing and word choice
Want to create a break or mark a transition? Ask a factual or summative question to mark where discussion has gone.
Want to invite more participation? Use your word choice to increase student involvement. For instance, “Charles, give us your conclusion, please,” offers little leeway to decline an invitation to speak, thus putting students on the defensive; on the other hand, “Charles, would you be willing to offer your conclusion?” is much less agonistic. Inserting “wriggle room” clauses (“That’s a tough one, Fred-at least for me-but can you get us started?”) can also reduce anxiety and encourage participation.
Want to encourage interactivity? Design questions that relate a comment to previous contributions or build on what others have said. (“Mark, would you agree with Lucy on this point?” “How does that comment relate to what Jack said?”) Phrased this way, your questions encourage students to listen to each others’ responses and to begin making their own connections.
Want to heighten student engagement? Use more challenge questions (“Why do you think that? What evidence supports your hypothesis?”) or deploy a series of short, quickly answered informational questions to speed up the tempo or prepare for more involved questions.
Want to regulate the mood? Make the discussion cool down or heat up by changing the level of abstraction and personalization in your questions. “Do you believe in abortion in cases of rape or incest?” is far more emotive than “What political, economic, and ethical factors affect the national debate on abortion?” In some cases you may wish to heighten the personal involvement of participants; in other cases you may wish to encourage detachment.
Want to give closure to a segment or session? Ask students a generalizing or summative question. (“If you had to pick out three themes that surfaced most often in our discussion today, what would they be?”)
Emotional tone and non-verbals
Factors such as voice level, facial expressions, bodily posture, and eye contact can profoundly affect the interpretation of one’s questions. A simple question like “What do you think?” can communicate hostility or geniality depending on the questioner’s emphasis and demeanor. A loud question delivered with sweeping gestures can stir the pot, while one deliberately and softly spoken can calm the room and invite self-reflection. While the needs of the moment may dictate which you choose, your question-asking will be most successful if you strive to use your tone, facial expressions, and gestures to communicate a sense of spirited inquiry rather than of student interrogation.
Think Time (aka Wait Time)
Think time is the amount of time a teacher waits for a response to a question. While the interval may feel like an eternity to the teacher, studies have documented that the average teacher’s wait-time is-remarkably-less than one second. Instead, get in the habit of pausing at least five seconds (and sometimes more) after both a question and the student response. According to research conducted by Columbia University, when teachers waited at least five seconds after asking a question, students lengthened their responses, backed up their claims with evidence, and became less teacher-directed and more peer-directed.
Step Four: Further Refine Your Technique
Refine your technique with these quick tips:
- Prepare questions in advance. Remember, it takes time to design effective questions. As you prepare for class, brainstorm questions and questioning strategies. As you come up with a list, think through the range of possible outcomes and responses to your questions. This will help you feel more prepared to let discussion flow while maintaining a sense of overall control. A good list will also ensure that you ask many different kinds of questions over the course of the class.
- Think about the sequence of your questions. No matter which sequence you choose (simple to complex, general to specific), it is helpful to have a game plan in mind. For instance, you may want to ask informational questions at the beginning of a unit to “prime the discussion pump” and to uncover material from which later synthetic questions will draw.
- Come up with alternatives to “Are there any questions?” Students may feel discouraged from responding to “Are there any questions” for a host of reasons: peer pressure, not wanting to appear inadequate, fearing to seemingly criticize the teacher, etc. To overcome such resistance, consider rephrasing: “Now, I’m sure you have some questions”, or “That was complicated. What did I leave out?” Moreover, such moments are prime opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding as a check of their learning. Instead of “Are there any questions?”, try a more proactive “Why did I substitute this value in this equation?” or “How would you summarize the argument I just advanced?”
- Debrief yourself after each class. Make notes on the more or less successful questioning tactics of the day’s session. Which questions generated the liveliest engagement? Which interactions did not go well, and why?
- Ask questions you don’t know the answers to. Students often enter college with the notion that asking questions somehow reveals a failure of understanding. Asking questions you don’t know the answers to is one way of communicating to your students that you value risk-taking and good questions just as much as “right” answers. Modeling the process of inquiry for your students sometimes involves venturing into uncharted territory and thinking through solutions with your students that may lead to dead ends!
- Keep billy club questioning to a minimum. As C. Roland Christensen notes, questions can be shepherd’s staffs or a billy-clubs. While question-asking may be used to check who has completed the reading or to compel student attention, overreliance on questions as an enforcement mechanism can sour classroom ecology and communicate the wrong message about the value and purpose of questions.
- C. Roland Christensen, “The Discussion Leader in Action: Questioning, Listening, and Response”, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1991), 99-122. A sensitive and quite helpful approach to the “triptych” of discussion leading: questioning, listening, and responding.
- Thomas Kasulis, “Questioning”, The Art and Craft of Teaching (Edited by Margaret Morganroth Gullette; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984), 38-48. Especially good on the procedural and personal dimensions of question-asking.
- Barbara Gross Davis, “Asking Questions”, Tools for Teaching (2nd ed; Jossey-Bass, 2009), 82-90. Helpful quick summation of research with further references.
- “Questions and Questioning Techniques”, Teaching Pedagogy to Graduate Student Instructors (Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment, University of Texas at Austin), 109-26. A thorough presentation loaded with tips; especially strong on Bloom’s taxonomy.